I have taken several weekend trips with my student group while in Cuba. Most recently we went to Santiago, where we also spent a day in Guantanamo, and two weeks before that we went to Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
In each city I had a completely different experience as a tourist. While in Santiago we decided to go to Guantanamo for the day because we had heard that the city and province were different from other parts of Cuba, with more American influence and supposedly more money, although this didn’t seem particularly true to us once we were there.
We were also hoping to get a look at the military base from a lookout at a hotel outside of the city. But upon hearing of our plans our tour guide informed us that the road to the hotel and lookout was inaccessible and had been for the last six or seven years. Although we were disappointed the day in the city was still interesting.
This was my first time in a Cuban town with virtually no tourists, and therefore no need to cater to them. We couldn’t hear any English or European languages being spoken in the streets. There were much fewer murmurs of “que linda” from houses and stoops.
We went to a restaurant for lunch but found that the door was locked. Some people sitting nearby told us to knock. We did this for a few minutes, left to look for another restaurant, and then went back to try again. Finally one of us practically pounded on the door. Moments later it opened to an angry waitress who chastised us for knocking so loud before letting us in.
Several waiters stood at a bar a few feet away and had obviously been able to hear and see us through the lace curtains the entire time. Several tables were occupied by Cubans eating lunch.
A few minutes later more locals knocked softly on the door and the waiters immediately opened it. Our waitress looked at us with a sour expression and instructed us to tally up how many of each dish we wanted before we ordered. She then disappeared for 15 minutes. It was pretty obvious we weren’t wanted in a Moneda Nacional restaurant in Guantanamo.
In Cienfuegos, and Trinidad in particular, people selling crafts on the street were all over us. In Trinidad we went to a restaurant to try a local drink and found that basically every single table, including ours, was speaking either English or a European language.
As I came out of the bathroom I was asked by an adorable elderly English woman if the toilet flushed. As she asked this a man that maintained the bathroom went in to flush it with a bucket, and I told her as much. She looked horrified, then faintly giddy at how she was “roughing it” in Cuba.
Trinidad was beautiful and better maintained than most areas in Cuba I have visited. It also caters to tourists in every way, with good service and trinkets galore. But I found Guantanamo beautiful in its own way, and mostly because it actually felt real to me. People may have even been rude to us there, but as least they meant it.